A Win for Consumers on Cellphone Unlocking

The agreement comes almost 12 months after more than 114,000 people petitioned the White House to take a stand against the Librarian of Congress’s decision to make cell phone unlocking illegal.

Good news on the year-long cell phone unlocking battle. The Federal Communication Commission just came to an agreement with U.S. wireless carriers that will make it easier for consumers to unlock their mobile devices.

The agreement comes almost 12 months after more than 114,000 people petitioned the White House to take a stand against the Librarian of Congress’s decision to make cell phone unlocking illegal. The unlocking movement has been hugely populist—uniting an unlikely group of tech activists, consumer rights advocates, digital freedom groups, electronics recyclers, phone repair shops, and conservatives under the banner of “You bought it, you should own it.”

In fact, the CTIA—the lobbying group for major wireless carriers—is the only group that publically voiced any real opposition to the clamor over unlocking. Their position proved unpopular with the press and with the public.

“[T]he issue has turned into a policy and consumer black eye for the wireless industry, which was perceived to be on the wrong side of the debate over consumers' rights and freedoms,” writes Reuters’ Alina Selyukh.

Faced with public outcry, pressure by the FCC, and a bevy of Congressional bills written to correct the problem, the CTIA was eventually forced to change their position. As part of their agreement with the FCC, the CTIA will voluntarily adopt six principles for unlocking mobile phones and tablets.  Here they are:

1. Disclosure: Each carrier will post on its website its clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on postpaid and prepaid mobile wireless device unlocking.

2. Postpaid Unlocking Policy: Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless device or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan or payment of an applicable early termination fee.

3. Prepaid Unlocking Policy: Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirement.

4. Notice: Carriers that lock devices will clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock devices remotely when devices are eligible for unlocking, without additional fee. Carriers reserve the right to charge non-customers/non-former-customers a reasonable fee for unlocking requests. Notice to prepaid customers may occur at point of sale, at the time of eligibility, or through a clear and concise statement of the policy on the carrier’s website.

5. Response Time: Within two business days after receiving a request, carriers will unlock eligible mobile wireless devices or initiate a request to the OEM to unlock the eligible device, or provide an explanation of why the device does not qualify for unlocking, or why the carrier reasonably needs additional time to process the request.

6. Deployed Personnel Unlocking Policy: Carriers will unlock mobile wireless devices for deployed military personnel who are customers in good standing upon provision of deployment papers.

CTIA claims the solution will take some time to roll out. Carriers will start implementing three of the six new principles in three months (no details yet as to which of the three are on the docket—your guess is as good as ours), with full implementation in 12 months.

Still, the agreement between the CTIA and the FCC doesn’t fully resolve the unlocking issue. While consumers can request a ‘key’ from carriers, they won’t be able to download an unlocking program and unlock their phones on their own. And, the developers who make and sell those unlocking programs are still at risk of $500,000 fines and 5 years in jail under current laws.

Presented by

Kyle Wiens is the CEO of iFixit, the free repair manual. He writes and speaks regularly repair, e-waste, and informal economies.  More

He is also the founder of Dozuki, a software company that helps manufacturers publish online technical documentation. He has testified on electronics reuse before International Trade Commission and is actively involved in developing global environmental standards. Kyle's writing has been published in Wired, the Harvard Business Review, and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on radio and television networks including MSNBC, the BBC, CBC, and NPR. 

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